[Deep Focus]
YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
GRADE: C+

From the poison pen of Neil LaBute comes another big kiss-off to humanity in the vein of his 1997 In the Company of Men. With a bigger budget has come the expansion of his milieu from the claustrophobic workplace to the bedrooms, gyms, and honeymoon suites of urban America.

At least I think it's urban America. I spotted a fuzzy yellow cab out the window in one scene. Like the last film, this one takes place in Anyplace. Given LaBute's worldview, better make that Everyplace. Your Friends and Neighbors actually reinforces my prior misgivings about LaBute's perspective. There's a smugness to these films, a sense (underscored by the second-person immediacy of this one's title) that LaBute feels he's lifting a veil of propriety from everyday life and exposing the reprehensible realities of banal human existence. The thesis here seems to be that the cities are full of self-absorbed shits who can't manage to communicate well enough with their mates to maintain intimacy with one another.

All I can say is, we needed Neil LaBute to tell us this?

The only thing that's unclear is exactly how hopeless LaBute thinks the human condition really is. In the Company of Men limited its depiction of cruel emotional malaise to just a subset of the male corporate culture. Your Friends and Neighbors expands the palette to include women as well as men, copywriters as well as college professors. Most of the characters are reasonably stylish and all of them seem well-off, and it's unclear what kind of movie LaBute would make about poor people. He shares Woody Allen's fascination with upscale adultery, but has none of Allen's compassion for these people and only the blackest sense of humor.

As in LaBute's previous film, the men, who meet in locker rooms and saunas to trade barbs and compare sex lives, hold all the power (and get the juicy roles). The women are capable of similar cruelties, but seem largely adrift, at the mercy of male trade winds. Their lives seem defined by the men they sleep with, and by the act of sleeping around. Amy Brenneman wafts uncertainly from partner to partner, cut off from paunchy, hapless husband Aaron Eckhart (much transformed from his role as ITCOM's acrid Chad) and unable to find a good match for her shy sexual style. Catherine Keener settles for less than the perfect lover, opting to put up with the whiny, needy Nastassia Kinski rather than the whiny, needy Ben Stiller. And again echoing the previous film, the biggest asshole (Jason Patric, who can use this as his audition tape for American Psycho) is the one with the happiest sex life. (Significantly, he also leaves the most traumatized women in his wake.)

The bad feelings are never palpable -- LaBute doesn't modulate his pictures at all, so Your Friends and Neighbors remains on the same slow burn from first reel to last. The characters have defining characteristics that underline their dysfunctionality in purely sexual terms: Brenneman doesn't like the word fuck, Keener only enjoys being screwed in absolute silence, the best lover Eckhart has ever had is his own hand, like that. Early on, drama professor Stiller lectures on the impulse toward, yep, fucking as the root of all human activities. LaBute spends the rest of the film working from that premise, showing how sexual demands and ideologies spill over from discreet conversation into casual conversation, and how the bedroom is the staging ground for battles to be waged in the larger arena of lifelong human relations.

The uniformly excellent cast does wonders for LaBute's uniformly acid dialogue, but the film still suffers from long, slow stretches in between the infrequent high points -- which are admittedly pretty good. Misanthropes will once again detect a kindred spirit in LaBute, who is obviously disgusted by too much of what passes for love, friendship and cameraderie as we approach the end of the millenium. (Somebody should double-bill this with David Cronenberg's Crash, which is as metaphorical in its approach as YFAN is literal-minded.)

The revulsion factor is so high, in fact, that LaBute makes no effort at understanding, redeeming or simply humanizing any of his rather pathetic characters. Schematically, the film is like an origami sculpture that folds in on itself geometrically, with recurring patterns throughout. It's like LaBute cut a deal with the devil that makes his films hook-sharp and scathing, but renders them weirdly bloodless. It's a painstaking depiction of hell on earth, but we experience it from a remove -- a wicked character study achieved at the expense of real drama.


Written and Directed by Neil LaBute
Cinematography by Nancy Schreiber
Starring Aaron Eckhart, Ben Stiller, Jason Patric,
Amy Brenneman, and Catherine Keener
USA, 1998

Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)


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